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Marion Howard: Not In My (Septic) Back Yard

On Wednesday morning — despite pleas to the contrary — the board of selectmen approved a sewer project.

Marion Howard is not pleased.

She lives on Bulkley Road North. About 15 years ago, she says, a resident on the east (Sasco Creek) side of the street circulated a petition. It asked the town to extend sewers north from Old Road, to include parts of Bulkley. At the time, 50 percent of the homeowners needed to sign such a petition for it to be considered.

Since then, Marion says, the minimum requirement was raised to 75%. The reason, she explains, is recognition that sewer projects require homeowners to pay assessments.

Some Bulkley Avenue North homeowners want sewers. Others do not.

Some Bulkley Avenue North homeowners want sewers. Others do not. (Photo/Google Maps)

Marion claims that since the original petition was submitted there have been substantive changes to the proposed project, adding other streets and locations. However, Marion says, the petition was grandfathered in at 50% of homeowners, not the current 75%  – and it included all those who had previously signed. However, she says, many properties changed hands in the ensuing 15 years.

Marion says that when she bought her home — after the original petition was circulated — she was not told that a potential assessment was in progress. She also says the town did not poll existing homeowners, which was one reason the project was stopped a year ago.

For homeowners like her, who attended a previous assessment meeting, the estimate per family was placed at approximately $10,000-15,000, she says. On Tuesday — the day before yesterday’s meeting — she received a letter putting the estimate per property at $17,166. She fears the cost estimate could balloon even higher.

She adds that a sewer is “not even necessary” for her property. Her septic system was built for a 5-bedroom home, but there are only 3 occupants. (The request for a sewer, she says, came about because the lower elevation on the east side of Bulkley makes those homes more vulnerable to septic issues.)

And she wonders how many other such petitions or potential assessments are also in the works.


A New Frontier In Phone Service

Last Friday night, Frontier took over Connecticut telephone service from AT&T.

Many customers were unsure what that would mean. They found out quickly.

Karl Decker — an avid “06880″ reader, and former English instructor at Staples — lost internet service until 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He was not the only one.

ATT FrontierFrom another phone — and after countless renditions of recorded “We are aware…thank you for your patience” messages – he managed to reach Frontier. A techie described what was happening as “all chaos.” He added, “thousands are offline.”

On Sunday, Karl was in Westport (Country Curtains had a 15%-off sale). The store still had no internet. Folks from Greenwich said they were still out too — along with everyone else they knew.

At noon on Monday, staffers at the Monroe Y noted that many friends remained without service.

“Is this news or what?” Karl asks. “When there’s an electric failure, it’s ll over the papers!”

Hear hear!

We’re #111!

Forbes has released its annual list of America’s most expensive zip codes.

94027 — Atherton, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley — is the priciest place in the nation. The median cost of 24 homes listed for sale last summer was a cool $9.03 million.

New York is the state with the most expensive zip codes: 6 of the top 10. 11962 — Sagaponack, in Southampton — is #2, followed by 3 in Manhattan.

This house was listed at $1,849,000 -- just about the median price in Westport, but more than $7 million below the median in Atherton, California.

This house was listed at $1,849,000. That’s very near the median price in Westport, but more than $7 million below Atherton, California.

Connecticut does not even crack the top 50. Three Greenwich zip codes appear at #52, 56 and 69. 06880 is our state’s 7th most expensive zip code, and we’re only #111 in the nation. Our median home price is $1,897,892.

Weston’s 06883 is #330 ($1,111,516).

I can only imagine what the teardowns and new construction look like in 94027.

And how poorly the drivers of all those expensive cars park.

(Click on for the full 500 list.)

Addressing Sexual Assault, Westporters Create A National “Culture Of Respect”

A Columbia University undergraduate hauls a mattress around campus to protest the school’s lax handling of her sexual assault charge against a fellow student.

At Yale, fraternity members taunt advocates of a strong sexual assault policy: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

Nearly every day, it seems, there’s a new twist on an old story: sexual assaults by college students on classmates.

But despite all the talk — and countless task forces, reports, videos, workshops and whatnot — there has not been one national, coordinated, clear and comprehensive place to gather facts, offer resources and provide help to everyone affected by college sexual assault: victims; their friends and parents; university administrators, professors and coaches.

Now there is. It’s called Culture of Respect — and the social norm-changing organization that launches officially tomorrow is spearheaded by a strong, committed group of Westporters.

Culture of Respect board members (from left) John and Sandi Fifield, and Anne Hardy.

Culture of Respect board members (from left) John and Sandi Fifield, and Anne Hardy.

John Fifield is an architect. His wife Sandi is a photographer. But they — and a corps of friends and strangers-who-soon-became-friends — quickly became experts on federal, state and local law; police and medical procedures; brain development, alcohol, fraternities, athletics, and politics as practiced at the national, state, local (and university) levels.

“We wanted to do something positive for young women on campuses,” John explains. “It didn’t take long to realize how much was lacking.”

They reached out to the best people they could find: legal experts, educators, folks at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Westporters opened doors for the Fifields, and the equally dedicated Anne Hardy. There were introductions to college presidents and deans. Leads to marketers, fundraisers, publicists. An invitation to a small roundtable discussion with Vice President Joe Biden.

All agreed on the need to provide one place where anyone could find information on what to do in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault; how to follow up; which prevention programs already work — even how parents and other adults can talk to young women (and men) about the issue.

And it’s all free.

So was the website design. Gina Nieves of MarkNet built it all, pro bono.

The Culture of Respect home page.

The Culture of Respect home page.

Through it all, the Culture of Respect organizers kept their focus on “culture.”

“We go beyond what happens in one relationship,” Sandi says. “This is about changing a culture. It includes all students, and all adults in a college. It speaks to parents of boys and young men too.”

Culture of Respect is not about looking backward or pointing blame, Anne says. The emphasis is on moving forward.

That’s not easy. Every college is different. But they’ve created a flexible framework. Schools as diverse as Dartmouth, Brigham Young, the University of Florida, Prairie View A&M and Kalamazoo Valley Community College can find something there that will work for them.

Users find an impressive array of information. One section offers help and resources for victims of sexual assault, friends and parents. Another is aimed at college administrators, in the form of vast research and over a dozen successful programs already in place.

A section on “activism tools” provides links to powerful videos. Here’s one example, from the University of Arizona:

Amazingly, none of the data and resources has been available in one place before. It’s a fantastic, surprising — and, unfortunately, eye-opening — website. It’s stunning in its depth, powerful in its breadth, and inspiring in its potential for a true cultural shift.

College sexual assault is a national problem. Today, the best tools to fight it are offered from right here in Westport, by a passionate, well-organized group of neighbors. They believe every college and university in America can must create a true “culture of respect.”

(For more information, and to see the website, click on


Whetting Your Appetite For Restaurant Week

Westport’s Restaurant Week is in full swing. It runs now through Sunday, October 19. (Yeah, it’s more than a week. Too many choices!)

If you need a little push — or an idea where to go — check out this video. It features the 27 restaurants, and 2 cocktail bars, that are participating.

If you’re an “06880″ reader who no longer lives here, you might like to watch too. You’ll see some places you’ve only read about, along with a couple of old favorites.


Mia Gentile Gets Into Kinky Boots

Mia Gentile — the 2007 Staples grad who rocketed to internet fame with a fantastic “Stanley Steemer” video, and most recently starred in “Forbidden Broadway” — is joining the cast of “Kinky Boots.”

She’ll be the ensemble worker with the awesome mullet. She’ll also understudy the role of Lauren.

We can’t show video from Broadway. Below is the next best thing: a clip of Mia’s fantastic performance in Staples Players’ 2005 production of “Garden of Eden.”

In it, Mia plays Eve. Later this month, she’ll be on stage with a drag queen.

Hey, that’s show biz.

Sammy Needs A Kidney

“06880″ reader Scott Brownlow writes:

My daughter Sammy needs a kidney. Can anyone spare one?

That’s the short version.

This is the longer version: My 20-year-old daughter Sammy is, like her mother Karen Minkowitz, a lifelong Westport resident.

Sammy is short (only 4-7), quiet, and generally quick to smile. She is intelligent, kind and gentle, and has a great laugh.

What you don’t see are the many scars crisscrossing her belly and wrapping around to her back. They’re a testament to the many surgeries she has endured over the years. You don’t see that she is in kidney failure.

Sammy Brownlow and her proud dad.

Sammy Brownlow and her proud dad.

Sammy was born with congenital anomalies known as VATER syndrome. At some point early in utero, Sammy’s cellular division took a wrong turn. Some lower abdominal organs were duplicated. Others made improper connections. This resulted in the loss of 1 kidney, and structural issues with the remaining one.

Multiple surgeries corrected these anomalies as much as modern medicine could. The surgeries also took a toll on her kidney function. She now needs a transplant.

In spite of all this, Sammy has been doing well. She attended preschool at the Learning Community, graduated from Unquowa School in Fairfield as valedictorian, attended Hopkins in New Haven and is currently pre-med at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Sammy Brownlow

Sammy Brownlow

Sammy is hard-working, diligent, and honest to a fault. She loves to read, do Ken Kens, learn languages (real and fictional), assemble jigsaw puzzles, play the ukulele, sing and practice archery.

I always assumed I would be the donor, when she got to this point. I am blood type O positive, like Sammy.

In January I began the process. Stress test, EKG, X-ray, blood work, psych evaluation, GFR — all looked good.

But my kidneys appeared strange in the CT scan, and doctors at New York Presbyterian Hospital decided it was not a viable option. Family and friends have stepped up, but no one has been cleared to donate.

Transplant centers are very careful about ensuring that a donor is in excellent health, and able to donate without any impact on their life. The surgery is minimal these days, performed laparoscopically. Recovery is quick. Costs are covered by the recipient. Click here for more information.

The initial step is to have blood drawn, to see if you are a match. If you are an O blood type donor, and would consider donating your kidney, please contact us: Scott and Karen Brownlow,; 203-221-8442.




No, Staples Students Probably Have Not Read “The Brothers Karamazov”

Leon Botstein is the subject of an intriguing profile in the current New Yorker.

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein

The president of Bard College has instituted a new admissions procedure. Described by one faculty member as “a classic Leon gesture” — meaning “idealistic, expeditiously enacted, showmanly, and absolutely earnest in spirit,” it gives high school students a choice.

They can submit test scores, GPAs and teacher recommendations, like applicants to every other school. Or they can write 4 very rigorous essays (10,000 words total) on subjects like Kantian ethics, economic inequality and prion disorders. Bard professors grade them; students with an average of B+ or better are automatically admitted.

It’s audacious. It’s Bard. And it’s not the 1st time Botstein has courted controversy over college admissions.

In 1985 — just a few months before Gene Maeroff of the New York Times named Staples one of the 46 outstanding high schools in the country — Harper’s magazine ran a 2-page spread of an actual transcript. It belonged to a female student at “a typical affluent suburban Connecticut school, regarded as among America’s finest.”

Staples sealThe transcript was accompanied by withering commentary from Botstein — already 10 years into his presidency of Bard. Staples was not mentioned by name, but among the activities listed for the unnamed student – called, perhaps not coincidentally, “S” — was Inklings. Botstein declined to say whether the transcript was from Staples, but he noted disingenuously that Inklings was a common name for school publications.

The transcript was selected at random from applications to Bard submitted over the years, Botstein said. His commentary focused on what he called the lack of thorough preparation high school graduates receive. “High school curriculums aren’t rigorous and focused enough,” Dr. Botstein claimed, citing the student transcript with “only” 2 years of biology, 1 of chemistry and none of physics. In addition, she took “only” one year of US history as a sophomore, and studied modern European history, and India and Southeast Asia, for a half year each.

A Staples' student took Functions, and many other diverse classes at Staples. That was not rigorous enough, though, for Dr. Botstein.

A Staples’ student took Functions, and many other diverse classes at Staples. That was not rigorous enough, though, for Dr. Botstein.

Though the transcript showed a wealth of difficult classes – Advanced Placement English, Creative Writing Seminar, French 5 Speakers, French Advanced Reading, Functions B and Theater 3, along with all those science and social studies classes — Botstein criticized “S” for not filling her day with “4 or 5 demanding courses.”

And although the student received a 600 on the SAT verbal, Botstein said that above-average scores did not indicate an ability to read critically or write clearly. He belittled her score of 60-plus on the Test of Standard Written English – the highest possible – by noting that she received it only once.

He added that although the high school she attended was a member of a regional association, its accreditation was no defense against bad teaching, poor curricula or inadequate facilities.

Botstein postulated that although the student would probably be admitted to one of America’s many reasonably competitive colleges, she would enter with an education deficient in many basic areas.

Based on a Staples student's transcript, Leon Botstein condemned her for (probably) not reading "The Brothers Karamazov" in high school.

Based on a Staples student’s transcript, Leon Botstein condemned her for (probably) not reading “The Brothers Karamazov” in high school.

“It is likely that ‘S’ does not know what is in the Constitution, knows nothing about economics, can tell you little about the theory and practice of capitalism, socialism or communism, cannot grasp the science and technology germane to medicine or defense, has never read The Republic, the Koran or The Brothers Karamazov. It is also reasonable to assume that hers has been a passive education by textbooks, workbooks and multiple-choice tests, in oversize classes and from teachers better versed in pedagogy than in their respective disciplines. And this is one of the country’s best high schools.”

In an interview with the Westport News, he added: “I have enormous respect for (Staples).”

The reaction on campus was primarily eye-rolling and head-shaking. If the state of high school education was so bad, students and staff wondered, why would Botstein have such respect for a school like Staples? And, if students – or, let’s say, presidents — at a highly regarded college such as Bard made leaps of assumption about, let’s say, high school pedagogy and class size based solely on the names of courses on a transcript, what did that say about their own capacity for critical, independent thinking?

Guidance counselors predicted a dip in Staples applications to Bard.

Positano’s Beach House

The news that Positano’s may close — and become a beachfront home — elicited plenty of comments on “06880.”

Readers spoke of the restaurant in glowing terms. Some thought of its long-ago, long-running predecessor, Cafe de la Plage.

But in between those 2 spots, there was — briefly — a restaurant called the Beach House.

Loretta Hallock sent along a painting by Tony Marino. The Westport artist loved Westport scenes. This one captures beautifully the charm of the restaurant, the neighborhood, and the “off-season.”

Beach House - Tony Marino


Feral Cats, Blighted Home Cause Beach Concern

It’s a neighborhood nightmare. A blighted house creates visual pollution. There are health and fire hazards. Property values plummet.

Neighbors want to help. They worry about their health and homes, but they also care about the owner of the blighted house. They contact various agencies, which for a variety of reasons say they can’t act.

So — as desperate as they are — the neighbors won’t take the one step necessary to start the legal process in motion. Unwilling to cause an eviction — and not wanting to make waves – no one steps forward to make a formal complaint.

That’s the precarious situation with one home near the beach. It’s on Norwalk Avenue, off Soundview Drive.

The home is owned by a woman who seems to be a hoarder. It’s crammed with so much stuff and trash, it’s hard to see in. It’s also overrun by feral cats — up to 30, perhaps. They attack neighbors’ cats (clawing one in the eye, requiring expensive surgery).

The cats roam into yards up and down the street, occupying basements and crawl spaces of homes that were flooded and are awaiting teardown or renovation. One neighbor found 5 cats sleeping on her front porch. Fleas are rampant.

One of the cats climbs up into a neighbor's lawn ornament on Norwalk Avenue.

One of the cats climbs up into a neighbor’s lawn ornament on Norwalk Avenue.

Neighbors admit they are part of the problem. No one wants to sign a formal complaint.

Meanwhile, Westport’s blight law seems to apply only to abandoned houses. Neighbors say the health department has tried to help, but this seems out of their jurisdiction. Animal control has been called several times, but is not allowed to trap the cats or remove them. The Humane Society won’t take feral cats.

Homes near the beach sell quickly, for a couple of million dollars — at least. Yet at least one has been on the market for months. The hoarder/blight house seems to be a deal-breaker.

Still, no one will sign a formal complaint. No one wants to cause an eviction. They don’t want to be “that guy.”

At least one neighbor has offered to pay for his own landscaper to work on the hoarder/cat woman’s property. She refused.

“I am sensitive to (the Norwalk Avenue owner’s) plight,” a neighbor says. “I just want to do what is right for the cats, and for the neighborhood. I think we need to help her, not shame her or pepper her with violation tickets, which she won’t pay anyway. But it’s hard to know how to help.”

Meanwhile, the cats multiply.

The neighborhood waits. And worries.